When the Rhythm Changes, So Must the Dance

Why careful listening is important to starting and scaling positive social change.

SSIR x Bridgespan: Achieving Transformative Scale SSIR x Bridgespan: Achieving Transformative Scale Achieving Transformative Scale is an eight-week blog series exploring pathways that social sector leaders around the world are pursuing to take solutions that work to a scale that truly transforms society.

Bringing an idea or movement to transformative scale is a complex task, especially in a world where the challenges we face often seem insurmountable. It requires innovation, partnership, and planning, as well as much patience. But since founding Tostan (an African community empowerment NGO) in 1991, I have found that something called responsive listening is actually the most essential element of helping a grassroots movement grow. For us, responsive listening has shaped not only what we do, but also how we fund it.

Responsive listening is about really understanding people and working alongside rather than for them. These behaviors are foundational for Tostan and a catalyst for all innovations to our programs and approach. Listening attentively to the needs of our partner communities and directly incorporating their feedback has constantly refined the way we work. One change at a time, we have built an approach that organically brings movements to scale, because the communities with which we partner essentially design and lead them.

Today, the heart of our approach to this work is our Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a three-year, non-formal education program with three main elements:

It is human rights-centered. During the first months of our program, community members learn about their human rights. Participants start a dialogue about what these rights mean to them and explore how their existing traditions, values, and religious beliefs support these rights. Likewise, knowledge of their human rights gives them a foundation to question practices or social norms that violate these rights. Learning about human rights has proved powerful, especially for women, giving them new confidence to speak out about issues such as child marriage, female genital cutting, and domestic violence, and to participate in family and community decisions.

It is holistic and integrated. The communities we partner with in Africa are dynamic, and work to address a broad range of challenges and experiences. We have found that education functions best in the same way: When holistic and integrated, it prepares participants to find appropriate solutions to the many issues their communities face. Our program has evolved to mirror this need, facilitating learning on topics such as human rights, problem solving, hygiene and health, literacy, numeracy, and project management. In this way, issues intersect and reinforce one another—for example when communities apply new skills to build a school or address a health issue.

It is inclusive of networks. When it comes to building support for a movement, it is imperative to include the extended family or social network. This is something I learned from my dear friend Demba Diawara, a village imam (leader) and social change activist in Senegal. He told me: "A person's family is not their village. The family includes one's entire social network. ... If you truly want to bring about widespread change, they must all be involved.” In other words, neighboring villages, relatives living far away, and all others connected to a given community must engage in the conversation.

A process called organized diffusion helps achieve this broad engagement. First, all members of an individual village or community must connect to the learning process. Our CEP classes include a diverse range of community members—women, men, and adolescents—from different social strata in the village. These participants learn and talk together during class sessions, and commit to sharing the information they gain with their family and community. Second, CEP is not a village-at-a-time model. Instead, we work in clusters of 30-50 communities within a region. That way, the dialogue expands even farther, as entire communities host social mobilization activities and inter-village meetings to discuss information relevant to their extended network—notably, that includes people not participating in our full program and even communities living across borders in other countries. Through this outreach process, entire social networks become engaged, taking ideas and turning them into action for change.

These hallmarks of our approach—human rights-centered, holistic, and inclusive of community networks—are the result of responsive listening, and they are what help empower and mobilize communities to identify and grow their movements for change. Although the cultural contexts and exact needs of communities vary, the same principle applies: We are working with communities to design an approach that can scale and sustain itself.

The practice of reflective learning has also influenced how we fund this work. Our financial support has traditionally taken the form of stand-alone projects lasting one or two years and focused mostly on single issues—a typical funding pattern for many NGOs. We deeply appreciate these partnerships. But as we looked at reaching thousands more villages across West Africa, we realized that we needed something more—multi-issue, multi-year, multi-country support to really follow what we’ve learned and allow our programs to scale up in step with communities’ ambitions.

Launched last year, our Generational Change in Three Years campaign creates that new, holistic funding model by coordinating our work in 1,000 communities and six countries around three goals: 1) ending female genital cutting in Senegal and reducing it in surrounding countries, 2) greatly reducing child marriage and violence against women and girls, and 3) transforming education for a generation of parents and children. The “pooled” funding model of this campaign will allow us to deliver results more efficiently—by reducing administrative costs, streamlining reporting protocols, and ensuring secure cash-flow. In April we launched the first wave of this new effort, starting activities in 150 communities in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Mauritania.

We have found that CEP is adaptable to almost every community and context, and works most powerfully when deployed at scale. Thus, continuing to run the model as best we could through uncoordinated projects would have embodied unresponsive listening. As we say in Senegal, “When the rhythm changes, so must the dance.” We are excited by where our latest campaign and other innovations can take us, and most importantly, how these innovations can propel the ambitious efforts of our partner communities to build bright futures.

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  • Sara Minard's avatar

    BY Sara Minard

    ON May 20, 2014 02:59 PM

    Brilliant, Molly. Thank you for articulating what so many of us share and for setting such an excellent example of what really working alongside communities on their development looks like. Tostan is more than an inspiration, it is a touchstone.

  • BY Jonathan Lewis

    ON May 21, 2014 07:30 AM

    Hi, Molly.  WE AGREE!  Indeed, check out this blog based on a talk of mine!  I’m wondering if you and I aren’t secretly sister and brother, separated at birth!  LOL.

  • BY Rashmir

    ON May 21, 2014 07:37 AM

    This is beautiful and important. Responsive listening and a truly conscious approach to social impact work is essential to true success, sustainability, and scale.

  • Jeffrey Ashe's avatar

    BY Jeffrey Ashe

    ON May 27, 2014 08:04 PM


    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for sharing your takeaways from Tostan in your post.  Active listening is the core of any successful grassroots development effort. I applaud your efforts to achieve scale and promote active sharing between leaders.

    I remember when I advised a group of graduate students from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who traveled to the Central African Republic to help design a program for UNCDF. I asked them to visit ROSCAS – tontines, susus etc. throughout the country to see if there were any differences between them. What most impressed my students was the intense interest that tontine members in one part of country had in how tontines in other parts of the country worked. Bringing tontine leaders together to learn from each other could be the most cost effective way to build a grassroots program. It amazes me how the solution can be so simple and so visible. You have clearly illustrated that development best serves its community when leaders collaborate in order to convert   a vision into a reality. 

    Is it true that Tostan has fostered the growth of savings groups in their service regions? Low cost, self-financed and group managed, virally replicating savings groups can become a platform for any community based initiative. This is a great model to promote the mission and goals of Tostan as   it builds upon on the economic and social capital of the groups and the growing financial and leadership skills of the members. 
    I wish you the best in your endeavors. It is impressive to follow both your and Tostan’s accomplishments and the range of issues you are addressing. As one who has struggled to scale up outreach for many years I admire Tostan’s strategy to scale for impact and reach more villages. 

    Jeff Ashe

    Carsey Institute
    University of New Hampshire
    Adjunct Associate Professor, SIPA-Columbia and Heller-Brandeis

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